US food airlift for Somalia gets under way

BELETUEN - Somalis rushed to unload sacks of food from US military transport planes yesterday as an airlift to the world's neediest people got under way. Four food-laden Hercules planes, marked with Red Cross insignia, landed in half-hour intervals on the gravel airstrip in this desert town 250 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu, to feed 300,000 famished refugees.

The flights, originating 670 miles away in neighbouring Kenya, were the first for the multi-million-dollar United States relief effort to aid Somalia, most of whose 2 million people face starvation.

Meanwhile, two United Nations military observers were shot and wounded in the capital, Mogadishu, yesterday by Somali gunmen who opened fire on their vehicle when they ignored orders to halt, the UN said.

Witnesses in Mogadishu said several jeeps converged on the four-wheel-drive car in the southern sector of the divided city and opened fire, shooting an Egyptian major in the back at close range and injuring a Czech observer in the head. Doctors said three Somali guards were killed.

In Beletuen, dozens of Somali volunteers ran up to the planes to unload the 50kg (100lb) food bags donated by Canada and the European Community and put them on a lorry for Red Cross kitchens in the area.

'God bless the Red Cross for our survival. This is a blessed operation,' said Mohamed Noor Ahmed, a local chief in the strife- torn country, at a kitchen guarded by rifle-wielding young men in head scarves. He said the kitchen served two cooked meals a day to about 2,000 refugees. 'Thirty die of hunger, disease and malnutrition every day. So help from the Red Cross is a drop in the Ocean,' he added.

Under an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has spent nearly half its world budget on the Somali crisis, the US aircraft were marked with the ICRC insignia to deter gunmen from looting their cargo.

Somalia, one of the poorest nations in the world, descended into anarchy last year when rival clans began a scramble for power after overthrowing the president, Mohamed Siad Barre. Previous efforts to bring aid to the country have been thwarted by looting by armed gunmen.

Marine Brigadier-General Frank Libutti, commander of the US 'Operation Provide Relief', called the first day's flights a success. 'So far, so good,' he declared. For the past week US planes have been ferrying food to desert airstrips in northern Kenya, which is host to about half a million Somali refugees and 700,000 victims of the Kenyan drought. Daily food deliveries are planned.

US officials said Beletuen was chosen because security was better than some other centres and because the town was in desperate need of food, with an estimated 70 per cent of people malnourished.

Letters, page 15

(Photograph omitted)

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